Friday, July 17, 2014 — We have seen thee, queen of cheese

I’m doing a lit­tle research on Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture of the 19th cen­tury. This is not a field that over­whelms the researcher with an abun­dance of mas­ter­pieces. Canada, at this time, was an empty, rugged, pio­neer­ing place, vaguely British in the soci­ety of its small urban elite, but for most peo­ple cul­tur­ally closer the the west­ern parts of the United States. Mon­treal had a mod­est lit­er­ary life in French, draw­ing on sev­eral cen­turies of folk­lore and even pro­duc­ing a few operas. These works were unknown in the rest of the French-speaking world. English-speaking Mon­treal­ers were more inter­ested in com­merce than cul­ture. Out­side of Mon­treal, the only real city, there was not much other than small towns, farms and wilderness. 

But in the Vic­to­rian Age, Cana­dian farm­ers and lum­ber­jacks read quite a bit. Many years ago, I worked as a farm hand in rural Ontario. I often made deals with elderly farm cou­ples to take in hay, or tend live­stock, in exchange for the col­lec­tions of old books that their par­ents and grand­par­ents had hid­den away in base­ments and barns. Most had been gath­er­ing dust (or hay twigs) for as much as a cen­tury. In this way, I built up an impres­sive col­lec­tion of nine­teenth cen­tury books, includ­ing a beau­ti­ful com­plete set of Wal­ter Scott, and I also got a good impres­sion of what ordi­nary Cana­di­ans actu­ally read. There were, of course, numer­ous books of ser­mons and exhor­ta­tions to reli­gious piety, and pop­u­lar mag­a­zines. Some of these, like The Strand, and Lippincott’s Monthly, had very high stan­dards of con­tent and style. Farm­ers were much involved in national pol­i­tics and the urgent reforms of the day. But they also read more lit­er­ary stuff. The same books turned up over and over again. These were the Sacred Texts, the four cor­ner­stones of Cana­dian Cul­ture of the time: the poems of Robert Burns, the nov­els of Wal­ter Scott and Charles Dick­ens, and the plays of Shake­speare. The first two tes­tify to the over­whelm­ing influ­ence of Scot­tish cul­ture in Canada, at the time. The Amer­i­cans Longfel­low, Emer­son and Mark Twain were pop­u­lar, but they did not have the same exalted sta­tus. Among more con­tem­po­rary Eng­lish writ­ers there were Ten­nyson, Brown­ing, and the now for­got­ten, but at the time immensely respected Edwin Arnold, who wrote a book-length life of the Bud­dha in verse, and who was inor­di­nately fond of excla­ma­tion points. Dour Cana­dian pio­neers were strangely famil­iar with lines such as:

Ah! Blessed Lord! Oh, high deliv­erer!
For­give this fee­ble script, which doth thee wrong,
Mea­sur­ing with lit­tle wit thy lofty love.
Ah! Lover! Brother! Guide! Lamp of the Law!
I take my refuge in Thy name and Thee!
I take my refuge in Thy law of good!
I take my refuge in Thy order! OM!
The dew is on the lotus! — Rise, Great Sun!
And lift my leaf and mix me with the wave.
Om mani padme hum, the sun­rise comes!
The dew­drop slips into the shin­ing sea! 

It is hard, how­ever, to imag­ine that the doc­trines of Sam­sara, Karma and Madhyama-pratipad exer­cised much influ­ence on the flinty Pres­by­te­ri­ans and Methodists of Ontario farm coun­try, no mat­ter how many excla­ma­tion points were hurled at them. 

For teenagers, the adven­ture nov­els of G. A. Henty and R. M. Bal­lan­tyne (who spent his youth in Canada, and set much of his fic­tion here), were ubiquitous.

The only Canadian-born nov­el­ist read inter­na­tion­ally was John Richard­son (Wacousta [1832] & The Cana­dian Broth­ers [1840]). In Vic­to­rian era Canada, even the hum­blest cit­i­zens were not only expected to read poetry, but to write it. Some even man­aged to find read­ers out­side the coun­try. Pre-eminent among them was Pauline John­son [Tekahion­wake], the Mohawk poet whose cel­e­bra­tions of Native Cana­dian cul­ture in verse reached an inter­na­tional audi­ence. It is inter­est­ing that the two inter­na­tion­ally known writ­ers in Canada were both of Native Cana­dian ori­gin (Richard­son was an Odawa). Richardson’s work has faded into obscu­rity, but John­son is still read, and her poems have con­sid­er­able charm. 

But out­side of these mod­est lit­er­ary achieve­ments, there was a del­uge of ter­ri­ble verse, ground out by local eccentrics in small towns across the land. Of these, few can have reached the Olympian heights of hor­ri­ble­ness achieved by James McIn­tyre of Inger­soll, Ontario. McIn­tyre wrote mostly about cheese, a sub­ject which he con­tem­plated with the same enthu­si­asm that Bun­yan con­tem­plated sal­va­tion and Word­worth con­tem­plated the infi­nite. Cheese was the cen­ter of McIntyre’s epis­te­mol­ogy, escha­tol­ogy, and meta­physics. One poem, The Oxford Ode to Cheese, reads:

The ancient poets ne’er did dream
That Canada was land of cream,
They ne’er imag­ined it could flow
In this cold land of ice and snow,
Where every­thing did solid freeze
They ne’er hoped or looked for cheese.
 
 And since they justly treat the soil,
Are well rewarded for their toil,
The land enriched by goodly cows,
Yie’ds plenty now to fill their mows,
Both wheat and bar­ley, oats and peas
But still their great­est boast is cheese.

But his mas­ter­piece was undoubt­edly Ode on the Mam­moth Cheese Weigh­ing over 7,000 Pounds (1866), which I must quote in its entirety:

We have seen thee, queen of cheese,
Lying qui­etly at your ease,
Gen­tly fanned by evening breeze,
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.

All gaily dressed soon you’ll go
To the great Provin­cial Show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.

Cows numer­ous as a swarm of bees,
Or as the leaves upon the trees,
It did require to make thee please,
And stand unri­valled, queen of cheese.

May you not receive a scar as
We have heard that Mr. Har­ris
Intends to send you off as far as
The great World’s show at Paris.

Of the youth beware of these,
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek, then songs or glees
We could not sing, oh! queen of cheese.

We’rt thou sus­pended from bal­loon,
You’d cast a shade even at noon,
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.

What can one say? McIn­tyre was appar­ently a very nice man, beloved in his com­mu­nity, and sin­cere in his ded­i­ca­tion to the muse. In poem after poem, he cel­e­brated the delights of tur­ophilia, and pride in the agri­cul­tural achieve­ments of Ontario. If you have ever sam­pled some of the bet­ter coun­try cheeses of this province, such as Har­row­smith or Balderson’s, you might be tempted to place them on the same plane as sal­va­tion or the infi­nite. In fact, I would dare to place them on a higher plane. I don’t really have a han­dle on the infi­nite, and I don’t believe in sal­va­tion beyond the grave, but I can appre­ci­ate a good cheese.

FILMSJUNE 2014

(Singer 2000) X-Men [Riff­Trax ver­sion]
(Barry 1975) Poldark: Ep.2
(Barry 1975) Poldark: Ep.3
(Sagal 1971) The Omega Man
(Slatzer 1968) The Hell­cats [Mys­tery Sci­ence The­atre ver­sion] Read more »

First-time listening for June 2014

24527. (Sol­dat Louis) Pre­mière bor­dée
24528. (Cole­man Hawkins) Desa­fi­nado
24529. (Armens) Une ombre
24530. (Giuseppe Verdi) Messa solenne
24531. (Giuseppe Verdi) Qui tol­lis
24532. (Giuseppe Verdi) Tan­tum ergo in F Read more »

READINGJUNE 2014

24537. (Thomas Piketty) Le Cap­i­tal au XXIe siè­cle
24538. (John Dry­den) An Essay of Dra­matic Poesy
24539. (Jan Michal Bur­dukiewicz) Microlith Tech­nol­ogy in the Stone Age [arti­cle]
24540. (George Mon­biot) It’s Sim­ple. If We Can’t Change Our Eco­nomic Sys­tem, Our
. . . . . Number’s Up [arti­cle]
24541. (Thomas Piketty) On the Long Run Evo­lu­tion of Inher­i­tance — France, 1820–2050
. . . . . [arti­cle] Read more »

Sibelius Quartets

"Kullervo paimenessa" (1896) by Sigfrid August Keinänen

“Kullervo paime­nessa” (1896) by Sigfrid August Keinänen

The concert-going pub­lic doesn’t asso­ciate Sibelius with cham­ber music, but he actu­ally com­posed quite a bit of it, includ­ing four string quar­tets. One of them, the Quar­tet in D Minor, Op.56, known as “Voces Inti­mae”, has made it into the stan­dard reper­toire. With it’s jaunty rhythms, pecu­liar twists and turns, and fre­netic pas­sages that must work up a sweat among the play­ers, it has won a place in the sun, though it’s not in the same league with the famous Beethoven, Bartók, or Dvořák quar­tets. It’s always been a favourite of mine, because it seems to con­vey a mood that hits me occa­sion­ally, for which there is no com­mon name. It was com­posed around the time of the stark, intro­spec­tive Fourth Sym­phony, and it shares some of its strange­ness. But Sibelius com­posed three oth­ers, sel­dom per­formed. The first, in E-flat, is a youth­ful effort with lit­tle to com­mend it. It’s just warmed-over Hay­den, con­structed by the book. But the sec­ond and third ones, in A Minor and B-flat, are lis­ten­able and enter­tain­ing. Sibelius pretty obvi­ously drew his inspi­ra­tion from Dvořák, but you can hear dis­tinc­tively Sibelian ele­ments in both. The B-flat one has evolved suf­fi­ciently to stand next to Voces Inti­mae with­out shame, and it should be played more.

FILMSMAY 2014

(Stephani 1936) Flash Gor­don [aka Space Sol­diers]: Ep.4 ― Bat­tling the Sea Beast
(Stephani 1936) Flash Gor­don [aka Space Sol­diers]: Ep.5 ― The Destroy­ing Ray
(Stephani 1936) Flash Gor­don [aka Space Sol­diers]: Ep.6 ― Flam­ing Tor­ture
(Stephani 1936) Flash Gor­don [aka Space Sol­diers]: Ep.7 ― Shat­ter­ing Doom
(Stephani 1936) Flash Gor­don [aka Space Sol­diers]: Ep.8 ― Tour­na­ment of Death
(Scardino 2013) The Incred­i­ble Burt Won­der­stone
(Stern 2013) jOBS Read more »

First-time listening for May 2014

24501. (Penn Kazh) mesKad
24502. (Giuseppe Verdi) Aïda [com­plete opera: von Kara­jan; Tebaldi, Simion­ato, Bergonzi]
24503. (Denez Pri­gent) Irvi
24504. (Kanye West) Yeezus
24505. (Open Folk) Bre­ton­stone Read more »

READINGMAY 2014

24500. (Th. Her­sart de La Ville­mar­qué) Barzaz-Breiz: chants pop­u­laires de la Bre­tagne
24501. (Hervé Lossec) Les Bre­ton­nismes
24502. (Khashchu­luun Chu­lu­un­dorj) Cur­rent Sta­tus of Mongolia’s Eco­nomic and Social
. . . . . Devel­op­ment and Future Trends [arti­cle]
24503. (Batchimeg Miged­dorj) Mon­go­lian Eco­nomic Back­ground and Polit­i­cal Des­tiny 
. . . . . [arti­cle] Read more »

Sunday, May 5, 2014 — In Search of Gildas

Grotto of St. GildasOne spe­cial trip, at my request, was to the chapel of Saint Gildas. Gildas is well-known to those who study Eng­lish his­tory in the “dark ages”, because his De Excidio et Con­questu Bri­tan­niae is the first writ­ten his­tory of Britain. In fact, it is pretty much the only doc­u­men­tary source for fifth and sixth cen­tury Britain. Bede’s His­tory doesn’t appear until the year 731. But Gildas spent part of his career on the con­ti­nent (he is sup­posed to have slain a dragon on a brief visit to Rome), and specif­i­cally in Mor­bi­han, where he died. There are two writ­ten biogra­phies of Gildas on which we depend for infor­ma­tion, but they were writ­ten respec­tively in the ninth and twelfth cen­turies, and tell very dis­sim­i­lar sto­ries. The ear­li­est life relates that Gildas con­verted the hea­then of the Blavet val­ley by stand­ing upon a great rock over­look­ing the river and shout­ing his exhor­ta­tions. That sort of thing, appar­ently, worked in those days. When some­one has already slain a dragon, he prob­a­bly has a suf­fi­ciently force­ful per­son­al­ity to pull it off. Any­way, the rock is still there, with a medieval chapel at its foot, and the place is won­der­fully atmos­pheric. It being before the tourist sea­son, Didier and I had it all to our­selves. Gildas lived, with one acolyte, in a tiny grotto under­neath the rock, still acces­si­ble, until he returned to his monastery on the coast and com­pleted Con­questu Bri­tan­niae. While the late medieval chapel was closed, I have found a pic­ture of its interior.

Chapel of St. Gildas

Saturday, May 3, 2014 — Some Architecture

14-05-03 BLOG The Blavet on a quiet bend

The Blavet on a quiet bend. I walked the path for a km and met nobody.

For such a short visit, I was able to see a good deal of the coun­try­side of Mor­bi­han. Didier drove me to a num­ber of won­der­ful places, and I also cov­ered a con­sid­er­able amount on my own, on foot, and did some hitch-hiking as well.

But rather than attempt to recon­struct where I vis­ited chrono­log­i­cally, or trip by trip, I think I’ll just present a gallery of images, with a few com­ments. Read more »